November 16, 2016

South Carolina's Religious Campgrounds

The Role of Rural Revival Meetings in 19th-century Religious History

South Carolina's Religious Campgrounds Indian Fields Tents From a Distance

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

Those attending revival meetings needed places to stay. These cabins, or "tents," at Indian Fields offered basic housing.

In 1790, a rebellious spirit blanketed the newly independent America. The democratic notions that helped defeat the British found root in numerous facets of the country’s culture, including religion, in the years following the war. Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian faiths established footholds in communities across the country in a period of time known as the Second Great Awakening (c. 1790-1845).

The Second Great Awakening would not just pick up where The First Great Awakening (c. 1730-1750) had ended. By energizing the people to address social issues such as temperance, suffrage, and slavery, and by including greater participation of white women and African-Americans compared to other contemporary cultural movements, it would become one of the most important revolutions in American history.

Methodist and Baptist ministers led the movement in southern states such as Georgia and the Carolinas. These areas remained heavily rural, so ministers would often travel to preach in areas otherwise unserved by a regular minister. The denomination of the minister did not matter to his congregation. Children needed to be baptized, couples needed to be married, and communities needed spiritual guidance.

An 1819 Print of a Methodist Camp Revival meeting

photo by: Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-772

This print of a Methodist revival meeting in 1819 shows the amount of people drawn to these events. Note the emotion of the people in the foreground, as well as the tents in the background.

The movement’s most iconic type of event, a camp meeting, ignored social class and encouraged the populist belief that through good works and devotion, one could achieve religious freedom.

The first camp meeting occurred in south-central Kentucky in June 1800, when a Presbyterian minister and two of his colleagues preached for three days. On the following day, two Methodist ministers arrived and further excited the crowd. One year later, an even larger event attracted as many as 20,000 people.

In his autobiography, Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright describes a typical revival: "Ten, twenty, and sometimes thirty ministers, of different denominations, would come together and preach night and day, four or five days together; and, indeed, I have known these camp-meetings to last three or four weeks, and great good resulted from them."

These meetings required a large amount of outdoor space with room to fit hundreds—sometimes thousands—of people. Remnants of these camps can be found across the country. Some are still active. South Carolina, for example, has several nineteenth-century religious campgrounds that exemplify vernacular architecture and space associated with these meetings in the south. Several were constructed after the peak of the Second Great Awakening as the latest variation in communal religious meetings.

Indian Fields Methodist Camp Ground is one such campground. Located in Dorchester County, it was first built in 1848 and remains an active place of worship. Nearly 100 rough-hewn cabins, or tents as they were first called, stand in a circle. Inside the circle is a tabernacle, where ministers would preach and other religious events would occur. Indian Field’s large complex served vast numbers of people who could not otherwise have fit into a single church or other religious buildings, marking it an important site in America’s nineteenth-century evangelical movement.

Camp Welfare, located in the upper part of South Carolina in Fairfield County, is an active religious campground that served the black community. The African Methodist Episcopal Church established the campground soon after the Civil War. Its 100 tents are arranged not in a circle, but in two concentric U-shapes. The arbor, typically an open-air arena or shelter located in the center of the site, is where communal religious events would take place. Today the arbor is covered, though it still serves as a meeting place.

Both Indian Fields and Camp Welfare highlight the popularity of increasing religious awareness and the trend of public, communal worship that expanded religious and social boundaries. Though the emotional excesses of the movement lessens over the decades, and religion became more institutionalized in America, the Second Great Awakening challenged the prevailing practices of the day, and by doing so, paved the way for us to do the same.

By: Bill Fitzpatrick

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